It’s so easy for horror to cross the line into camp. The conscious effort to make audiences feel a sense of threat and danger when they’re perfectly safe feels a little ridiculous, if you think about it too closely. And if an attempted scare falls flat, it feels more laughable than a failed attempt at drama or comedy. Horror forces both the storyteller and the audience to open up to emotional risk, and it feels particularly awkward to offer that kind of vulnerability and get the equivalent of a halfhearted “Boo!” in return. Some horror filmmakers embrace that sense of ridiculousness by playing up horror’s campiest side, and some fight it with airless self-importance. But projects like Josh Ruben’s Shudder movie Scare Me use camp as a weapon to disarm horror fans, in an attempt to get their guard down. Scare Me plays some thoughtful games with the idea of horror-comedy, and eventually, Ruben uses the self-aware humor to sharpen the shocks.
Scare Me puts Ruben (the writer, director, producer, and co-star) in an isolated cabin, where his character, aspiring actor and horror writer Fred, has retreated to write a screenplay. He has the barest, dumbest shred of an idea — “Werewolves have guns… Get revenge?” reads his otherwise-empty draft — and he has no idea how to elaborate on it. Eventually, he learns that a neighbor in a nearby cabin, Fanny (Aya Cash), is a recent bestselling horror novelist. When a storm takes out the power in both their cabins, Fanny turns up on his doorstep and suggests they occupy themselves by making up horror stories for each other. “Scare me,” she demands, with a belligerence that makes it clear she isn’t going to be an easy sell.
The rote 2000s version of this story would turn most of the rest of the movie into a horror-shorts anthology, using Fanny and Fred as a frame story for an unrelated series of creepy tales. The 2010s equivalent would have each short written and shot by a different team. Ruben goes in a different direction, literally just having Fred and Fanny tell each other stories, getting increasingly expressive as they try to impress each other. Sound effects emphasize every beat in the story — snarls, roars, gunshots, and so forth — but Ruben never goes past shadowplay and a few low-key effects in visualizing the stories.
It feels like he’s playing out an inside joke for horror audiences, by acknowledging their hunger for new scares, while refusing to let them lose sight of the fact that these are just stories. He brings them into the action through Fanny’s sneering skepticism and Fred’s dubiousness and embarrassment, letting them feel different sides of the relationship between horror filmmakers and their audience, and letting them see how horror stories get crafted in ways specifically designed to combat those knee-jerk responses.
The stories are rarely particularly scary, and they keep getting interrupted and deflated. Ruben gets momentary charges from the ways the stories develop, but his real tension comes from the growing dynamic between Fanny and Fred. She’s visibly more talented and confident than he is, with ready access to ideas and the skills to make things up on the fly. But she’s also judgmental, harsh, and dismissive of Fred, in ways that highlight all his insecurities, and puncture his enjoyment of the storytelling every time he really relaxes into it. Fred, meanwhile, is defensive and jealous of Fanny, and he swings back and forth between wanting to impress her, and resenting her imposition. Ruben calculates all of that into the stories they tell and their commentary on each other, and the arrival of a third participant (Chris Redd) throws the balance off further.
Scare Me feels very much like a stage play struggling for cinematic qualities: it’s largely limited to Fred’s cabin, and it’s up to the storytellers to make that confined space feel as big and interesting as possible. The budget constraints and the indie-movie feeling of some raw talents pushing for professionalism are nakedly obvious. While the film isn’t as grim as the Duplass brothers’ Baghead (also about aspiring actors trying to write a horror screenplay in an isolated cabin), or as manic and silly as Brett Simmons’ You Might Be the Killer (an indie that heads even further toward camp), it shares their amateurish rough edges. But Ruben does take advantage of his cast’s extreme expressiveness, as they contort their faces, bodies, and voices to take on increasingly creepy roles. Whenever they’re fully in the moment and into the stories they’re crafting, it’s easy to get swept up in the ride, if not the scares.
But Scare Me’s real cleverness is that Ruben acknowledges how ridiculous and contrived it is for a bunch of adults to try to creep each other out with the equivalent of campfire stories for kids. Fanny’s initial “Scare me!” is delivered with all the challenge of longtime horror viewers who want to be surprised, expect to be disappointed, and are already a little angry about every time someone’s tried unsuccessfully to really get under their skin. By playing up the artificiality of the situation and of Fanny’s demands, Ruben gets to have it both ways: if viewers think a given story is dumb or ineffectual, they’re in the characters’ shoes, calling for excitement and finding the response wanting. But every moment the film edges into real horror is a bonus, and by the end, Ruben pushes into much more unsettling territory, suggesting that real horror has nothing to do with Fred’s werewolf, Fanny’s zombies, or their shared magical troll.
Scare Me has a lot in common with a lot of today’s low-budget horror. Ruben certainly does his best to mix up the camera angles and lighting for a variety of effects, but the film is still visually and narratively simple, largely built around one easily described idea, and at times stretching that idea too far to entirely be satisfying. The pacing feels off, with the setup taking too long, and the final act wrapping up too quickly. But in spite of all that, Scare Me finds its effects in its simplicity and recognizability. It acknowledges the unspoken contracts between horror writers and horror-lovers, and puts them on the screen in creatively twisted but recognizable ways. Even if viewers never entirely lose themselves into these stories, they can at least feel like they’re fully in on the joke.
Scare Me is streaming on Shudder now.